Getting Into Gaza


In late December, one year after Israel’s brutal military assault on the Gaza Strip, some 1300 people from 43 countries descended on Cairo to draw attention to the ongoing Israeli- and Egyptian-led siege on Gaza. I attended the Gaza Freedom March along with activists, journalists, writers, Jews, Christians, Rabbis, Imams, atheists, doctors and assorted others.

The situation in Gaza remains dire. Israel continues to launch deadly air raids on the strip while Egypt helps maintain the siege that imprisons 1.5 million people by blocking the supply of aid. Egypt is building an underground wall on its border with Gaza and now Israel is building a wall on its border with Egypt. The Middle East is again being needlessly divided and separated, with vital resources restricted and geopolitical considerations inevitably leading to more conflict.

Disturbingly, another military assault against Gaza is now being predicted.

Perhaps even more disturbingly, a recent online survey on the website of Israel’s most popular television station, Channel 2, indicated that more than half of respondents to a poll wanted Israel to "destroy Gaza". Meanwhile The Jerusalem Post ran an editorial in early January ridiculing the idea that Gaza was even under siege.

The Gaza Freedom March was an attempt to bring this unsustainable situation to global attention.

Although our plan to enter Gaza was quickly thwarted by Egyptian authorities (only a handful of protesters were finally granted permission to enter), we staged 10 days of demonstrations, actions, hunger strikes and media events in Cairo itself. The Electronic Intifada‘s Ali Abunimah live-blogged throughout.

During these 10 days I spent time with Debbie, an American mother of two in her late 40s whose husband of 18 years is Palestinian. Her story epitomised the way in which Palestine has become one of the most important global issues of our time. She had voted for George W Bush in 2000 and 2004 and relied solely on Fox News for her information about the world. She thought she knew about politics and how it worked. Despite her husband’s background, she had never taken a deep interest in the Palestinian issue.

Sometime in 2008, she started questioning her beliefs. She initially disliked Barack Obama because she heard he was a socialist, a terrorist sympathiser and anti-American. And then Israel started bombing Gaza in late December 2008. Three weeks later, she was a woman reborn. She told me that watching images of bombs falling on Gaza "opened something up inside me". She started finding YouTube videos of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn lectures and reading "as much as I could, even neglecting my children sometimes" (both of whom were in Cairo with her, chanting and protesting with vigour).

Debbie’s story was remarkable for its simplicity and transformative power. She was softly spoken, polite and knowledgeable about the conflict. I asked her why she came on the march and if her family and friends thought she was crazy. "I’ve started to really understand my husband’s history and America’s role in the conflict," she told me. "I felt compelled to come and bring my kids."

The protest unfolded in entirely unpredictable ways. After Cairo’s rejection of our application for entry into Gaza — and the forced removal of any activists travelling towards the Rafah border — it was decided that we should mobilise publicly. Gathering more than a few people at a political rally is against the law in Egypt (President Mubarak has maintained a state of emergency since his ascension to the leadership in 1981) but organisers assumed that foreigners would be afforded some leniency.

One of the key actions was outside the Journalists’ Syndicate in central Cairo. In front of a tall, imposing building, outspoken Egyptian protesters screamed in outrage against Israel ("Down with Israel!"), the Egyptian system ("Free Egypt" and "Down with Mubarak") and against visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ("Boycott Israel" and "Down with Netanyahu"). The siege on Gaza was never forgotten but the foreign media who were present highlighted the bravery of the Egyptian protesters who were shouting in front of hundreds of assembled riot police. These activists faced serious consequences for dissenting against the brutal Mubarak regime although they protested seemingly without caution.

I asked a few of them if they feared arrest, torture or worse. They all seemed resigned to the situation and protected by each other’s presence. Before the protest, march organisers had encouraged people to physically hold on to any Egyptians who were being taken by police. On a number of occasions, including in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, I saw foreign activists holding on to the shirts of Egyptians as they were being dragged away by plain-clothed officials.

One Egyptian hunger-striker, Ahmed, told me that he wasn’t afraid of his government, "because it’s my duty to support the Palestinians when others are not". He was 20 years old and a fluent English speaker. "I feel it is my responsibility as an Arab to stand in solidarity with my brothers and sisters in Gaza," he said. I sensed that many Egyptians shared his view but couldn’t say so publicly.

Mass protests in Cairo were eventually violently shut down by Egyptian officials and a leading declaration that outlined ways to isolate "apartheid Israel" and step up a global campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions was led by South African unionists.

The Gaza Freedom March was obviously not a roaring success. Not getting into Gaza, in-fighting between leaders and indecision on how to best rally the assembled masses all created moments of tension. But, as a participant, I left relatively pleased with the event. Global media coverage was extensive, Egypt’s role in Gaza was highlighted and Gaza itself was a focus of intense media scrutiny.

Palestine is slowly gaining prominence as an issue that inspires and focusses worldwide civil society.

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